LOVELAND, COLORADO — Washington, DC, is famous for monuments that honor presidents or heroism during war.
But in a recent contest sponsored by the Washington Post, the most popular monument is not on the National Mall in front of the Capital, but downtown in front of a fire station. And it is neither a giant in height nor reputation.
Instead, the life-size monument depicts a Labrador retriever, gazing up at a fireman in a rumpled uniform, who smiles back at his faithful canine partner.
“It’s a pretty great honor to be the top monument in DC. It’s quite cool," said Austin Weishel, 25, an artist who lives in Loveland, Colorado, who created the National Fire Dog sculpture. "There’s no other words to describe it."
Weishel was guided toward art by a disability that makes it hard to read, a condition called dyslexia.
“I have a very severe form of it," he said. "You read a little bit slower. Some numbers and words jump around. You may look at it correctly in your mind, but if you speak it or try to write it again, it will be jumbled. So it just kind of mixes up in your mind.”
Compared to his struggle with reading words, Weishel says making art was easy, especially sculpting in clay, so he decided to excel at that.
“The people that are dyslexic are a lot more driven sometimes, on certain areas, because they had to overcome that challenge," he said.
In high school, Weishel refined his skills in clay. He also worked at a bronze foundry, where fiery furnaces heat stone cauldrons filled with metal ingots into a white hot, glowing soup. As the metal cools to a bright orange, it's poured into plaster casts. Once the bronze solidifies, it’s on its way to becoming a statue. With this new knowledge, Weishel began transforming his small clay statues into bronze.
In addition to art, Weishel pursued another passion, one that involves a different side of fire. He became a volunteer firefighter.
“I always was attracted to the fire department," he said. "I lived in Chicago right next to a fire department.”
When he was 19, Weishel’s Colorado fire department helped him combine his passions by asking him to make a statue.
“They said, 'Hey, we’re doing a new museum and we’d like you to do a piece of artwork for us," he recalled.
Weishel’s first life-size statue depicts a fireman, reaching out to a child. It's titled “Follow your Dream.” After seeing the statue, another Colorado firefighter followed his own dream. He suggested that Weishel make a sculpture honoring firemen who team up with dogs trained to sniff for flammable chemicals after a suspicious fire.
The statue pays tribute to dogs like Holly, a friendly Labrador retriever. She helps arson investigator Mike Manzo search through houses for flammable residues after suspicious fires.
“She trusts me at fire scenes to search areas that most people probably wouldn’t go into," Manzo said. "They’re a very useful tool to get through a fire scene fairly quick, where a person with a mechanical detector...in place of a canine nose, it would take hours.”
Weishel’s fire dog monument is titled, “From Ashes to Answers,” and Manzo says it accurately depicts the teamwork that a man and a dog need, in order to find answers to an arson crime.
“The canine is looking up at the firefighter’s eyes, and their, their bond," Manzo said. "Even at a fire scene, the dog is looking for the handler to see what are we [going to] do next.”
Since bronze can last thousands of years, Weishel hopes his sculpture will be a timeless testament to his passion for art, and the bond between arson investigators and their dogs.